LONDON – Institutions are not lovable. They are rule-bound and dull; they have routines, committees, agendas, budgets – and rows about budgets. If they are successful, they go on forever.
Prizes are for heroes. Like heroes, prizes blaze and are gone. Prizes belong to those who make great discoveries, write great poems, or discover new ways of living – to the bringers of new things. Institutions are dull – that is their purpose – but those who found them may also be creators, even heroes.
There is no single founder of the European Union. Many people, perhaps even hundreds, contributed. But, as the EU accepts the Nobel Peace Prize for 2012, three in particular deserve to be honored.
Robert Schuman was born in Luxembourg in 1886. A German citizen who served in World War I, he became a Frenchman when Alsace-Lorraine was restored to France. During World War II, involved with the Resistance, he was arrested and interrogated. He escaped and survived, all the while continuing to believe in Germany’s defeat and in Franco-German reconciliation. After the war, he returned to politics.
Schuman was France’s foreign minister in May 1950, facing grand strategic questions on the organization of European and Atlantic cooperation. Prime Minister Georges Bidault put forward proposals for machinery to coordinate the Western European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty, the Council of Europe, and the OEEC (the forerunner of the OECD). But other, more practical questions on postwar recovery and relations with Germany were more pressing.
The most urgent was the German request to increase steel production from 10 million tons to 14 million – well above French levels. But, as the defense minister, René Pleven, told his British counterpart, Manny Shinwell, French recovery would be blocked unless Germany’s problems could also be resolved. And for Schuman himself, there was the question of what he should say at the three-power (United States, United Kingdom, and France) meeting on May 11, where policy toward Germany was to be discussed.
The policy he proposed was the work of Jean Monnet. Monnet was born two years after Schuman in Cognac, into a family whose business sold brandy worldwide. He was a man of charm and determination – known to his friends for being obstinate, “like a peasant determined to sell a cow,” but an inspirational figure for those who worked for him.
During WWI, Monnet worked in London organizing allied shipping with British, American, and Italian counterparts. His business experience gave him contacts across both the Channel and the Atlantic, as well as an ability to see things in quantitative terms. After WWII, he was head of post-war planning in France, playing a key role in implementing the Marshall Plan.
Monnet had some knowledge of coal and steel, having been involved, as a League of Nations official, in finding a settlement for the question of Upper Silesia after WWI. The solution, which involved joint Polish-German management of an industry across national borders, was hated in Germany; but it worked, and it survived for most of the interwar period. Monnet sent his proposals – worked out with Paul Reuter, a lawyer and confidant of Schuman – first to Schuman in late April, and then, when he received no response, to the prime minister’s office.
In fact, Schuman took the plan to the Cabinet on May 3, where he mentioned it right at the end and in such a low voice that no one understood what he was saying. He raised it again the following week, also quietly, but by then Monnet and others had lined up support from key ministers and the prime minister. Before that, however, Schuman had talked to the third key actor.
This was US Secretary of State Dean Acheson. The conversation took place at a reception given by the US ambassador for Acheson, who was on his way to London for the three-power meeting. For once, a cocktail-party conversation meant something.
Acheson should be remembered as one of the EU’s founders. He was the architect of NATO; and it was only when the fundamental problem of European security had been solved that it became possible to think in the creative terms of the Schuman Plan. Moreover, the US was the only benevolent power left standing in Western Europe at the end of WWII. Without its consent, nothing was possible.
Acheson understood that the Schuman Plan, though modest and limited to dealing with industrial matters, was in reality more far-reaching than anything Bidault was proposing. And he gave more than consent. In his biography of Jean Monnet, François Duchene comments that “perhaps the most extraordinary feature of the Schuman Conference [which approved the idea of a Coal and Steel Community] was the enormous, almost internal role that the Americans played.” So it has been ever since.
The EU has contributed to the longest period of peace in European history. NATO, too, is a part of the story. But the EU has created a political society in Europe such as has never existed before: a continuous process among Europe’s nations that enables adaptation of policies and institutions to tackle problems as they arise – and to tackle them together.
There is much that is wrong with Europe, and much will need to change to solve the problems of the euro. But if we recall the problems that Europe faced in the 1950’s, there is no reason to suppose that this cannot be done.
One can understand why the Nobel Committee does not award prizes posthumously. If it did, the prize for literature would be an annual battle between Shakespeare, Dante, and Goethe. But we should also understand that this year’s award honors not so much a very imperfect set of institutions as it does the three men who founded them.